*The Beginnings of Art History * Life in the Garbage Patch * Prehistoric Pliosaur Pain * The Bowerbird's Fruitful Foreplay * Exploiting Guppy Love * Octopus on Ice *


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The Beginnings of Art History
white_art.jpg Rock shelter and engraving (inset). Courtesy Randall White

When modern humans moved into Europe about 40,000 years ago, it appears they immediately began to redecorate.  Many caves and rock shelters have been found with sophisticated art in various forms - including engravings, and paintings.  Dr. Randall White, a Canadian anthropologist at New York University, has led a team that's been exploring a site in southern France known as Abri Castenet, a rock shelter that's been explored for nearly a hundred years, but is still revealing new artifacts.  The latest discovery is a huge rock that is part of the collapsed roof, and which, when uncovered, had preserved engravings dating back 37,000 years.  These engravings have been described as symbolic representations of female sexual organs, though Dr. White doesn't necessarily agree with that interpretation.  In any case, this is the oldest reliably dated rock art yet discovered in Europe.
          
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Life in the Garbage Patch

halobates-5b-large.jpg Sea Strider, courtesy Scripps Institution
The North Pacific Gyre is a circulating set of currents that tends to trap floating material and debris.  Over the last forty years an increasing amount of that debris has been non-degrading plastic, often in quite tiny floating fragments, so that the gyre has now become known as the Pacific "Garbage Patch."  Miriam Goldstein, a graduate student, and her colleagues at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California, voyaged to the garbage patch to investigate the impact that floating plastic fragments were having on the ecosystem.  One of the curious impacts they discovered was that sea skaters, marine insects related to water striders, were taking advantage of the floating plastic, which gave them far more places to lay their eggs.  This is just one change in the deepwater ecosystem that might flag a larger shift.

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Prehistoric Pliosaur Pain

pliosaur_sassoon.JPGDr. Sassoon and the lower jaw of a pliosaur, photo by S Powell
Pliosaurs were marine reptiles that lived 150 million years ago during the Jurassic period.  They were 8 to 9 metres in length, with an elongated head, similar to a crocodile, a short neck, large plump body and four flippers.  It had an extremely powerful jaw with long, sharp teeth.  But a fossilized jaw bone, found in Wiltshire, England in the 1990's, has revealed several unusual conditions in at least one pliosaur.  Dr. Judyth Sassoon, a Paleontologist from The School of Earth Sciences at the University of Bristol in England, discovered that by examining this fossil, she was able to piece together the story of this pliosaur's life.  The fossil showed evidence of erosion in one joint, which is indicative of a form of arthritis.  It also had a crossed jaw.  This resulted in teeth from the upper jaw impacting bone on the lower jaw.  These painful conditions weakened the jaw, eventually causing it to break, which meant the pliosaur was unlikely able to feed again.   
  

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The Bowerbird's Fruitful Foreplay

Spotted Bowerbirds are found in Australia and Papua, New Guinea.  The males are known for their elaborate courtship ritual that begins with the construction of an elaborate bower - a nest-like avenue of carefully arranged sticks on the ground.  The bower is then decorated with many shinny and colourful objects - including a locally found bright green fruit - all designed to attract a mate.  New research by Dr. Joah Madden, a Senior Lecturer from The School of Psychology at the University of Exeter in England, has found that the process of collecting, then discarding, the fruit as it withers is resulting in a form of cultivation.  As the bowerbird clears the area to enhance his display, it is, in fact, helping the seeds from the withered fruit germinate.  It is not clear whether the bowerbird is intentionally propagating fruit in this mutually beneficial behaviour. 
 
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Exploiting Guppy Love

guppy_and_model.jpgPrawn model and guppy.  Courtesy A. De Serrano 
Male Trinidadian Guppies have developed bright orange spots and coloration to attract females of the species.  Research has suggested that orange has evolved as an attractant because the males are exploiting an already existing predilection in the guppies, who are attracted to nutritious orange fruit that occasionally falls into the streams in which they live.  However, a predator may be taking double advantage of this.  A predatory Trinidadian prawn - a crayfish-like shellfish - has developed orange spots on its claws.  Lab experiments by graduate student Alex De Serrano and her colleagues in the department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Toronto, using model prawns, have shown that while prawns without orange spots are avoided by guppies, a little dab of orange paint tends to overcome their natural aversion to the predator.  The orange is a powerful attractant, it seems, promising both sex and food to the guppies.
 
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Octopus on Ice

octopus.JPGTurquet's Octopus. Steve Rupp/National Science Foundation
The ancient ice sheets of Antarctica have given us some of the clearest clues we have into our climate's history.  And many of the models we use to try to understand what the future holds are guided by these frozen clues from the past.  But Dr. Louise Allcock, a geneticist and lecturer in zoology at the National University of Ireland in Galway, has an unorthodox method of unraveling the mysteries of the Antarctic.  She and her team have studied octopus DNA to tell us what happened in the Antarctic in the distant past. They found that the octopuses from the Ross and Weddell Seas, which are now separated by the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and almost 10,000 kms., are genetically almost identical. This finding supports the models that suggest that these two regions may have once been connected, about 200,000 years ago, when the ice sheet last collapsed. 
 
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Theme music bed copyright Raphaël Gluckstein, Creative Commons License by-nc-nd-2.0